Holidays on the Farm


Farm Notes

I so enjoy the holiday season! The last two calendar months of the year are, for nearly all intents and purposes, dedicated to food, drink, and family…although not necessarily in that order. On the farm, it means a slowing down after a busy summer and exhausting fall harvest season. I get back to really enjoying food again. I cook and bake. We throw a holiday party for friends and neighbors. We are social once again after a long, communal drought that allows only work, work, and more work! But of course holidays on the farm aren’t all gift wrap, turkey legs, and grasshopper pies. Farming continues in its usual, unforgiving manner.

A few Novembers back, we agreed to allow a friend to set coyote traps on our land—down the hill, near our creek. Our children and dogs had no reason to go over there at that time of the year, and we certainly didn’t mind him thinning out our resident predator population. Our friend quietly came and went those crisp fall days, checking his traps regularly. Later that month, we were excited to have family from Pittsburgh visit for Thanksgiving. Our three nieces are the same ages as our girls, and are equally active and curious about the natural world. When my daughters asked—on Thanksgiving Day itself—if they could take their cousins down to the creek, I thought nothing of it. In fact, I was relieved to have them out of the house so my sister-in-law and I could concentrate on getting the big feast ready. It couldn’t have been twenty minutes later when I heard the screams. My youngest, Margaret, had sprinted the quarter-mile up the hill and back to the house, screaming that Canute (our guardian dog) had been caught in a trap. Of course, we dropped everything and ran down to investigate. Canute, at 140 pounds, was wild with fear. Any attempt we made to open the noose holding his paw resulted in him thrashing and snapping—he seemed to be all teeth and froth. I had never feared our gentle giant until that day. (A frightened dog can be extremely dangerous.) We called our vet—Herkimer Veterinary Associates—and Dr. Fischer was the lucky doc on call. “How was your turkey?” I asked in my attempt to keep the mood light. “I don’t know—it just came out of the oven!” was his reply. Oops. But Dr. Fischer came straightaway and managed to sedate our frightened pooch. It was only then that we could extract him from the trap and assess any damage. Remarkably, the trap had done exactly what it was meant to do—ensnare his foot, but otherwise not hurt him in any way.

Every winter, we have our usual crop of lambs and goat kids—a few each day throughout the months of December and January. Once all is said and done, we will have 100-120 babies bouncing around our barn. Thankfully, the vast majority of those births are uneventful with experienced, healthy mothers doing most of the work all on their own. Of course, we have had our fair share of not-so-simple births, too. But, again, the vast majority of those needing assistance just need a simple repositioning of the head before it will exit the birth canal or pulling a very large baby out of a tired mom. Unfortunately, we had a sheep prolapse her entire uterus a few years ago…on New Year’s Day, in fact. Having never dealt with a prolapse before, I called our vet and found that Dr. Hayes was on call. He told us to keep her calm and still, and to run warm, clean water over her prolapsed uterus until he could arrive. Once Dr. Hayes was on site, he proceeded to remove the placenta (detaching the cotyledons from the caruncles), rinsed her uterus well and checked it for tears, and then slowly and carefully pushed it back where it belonged. It was fascinating to watch and I learned so much that day. Our sheep, “Prolapsia” as we then named her, pushed her uterus out again a few days later. But having watched Dr. Hayes do it, I got my confidence up, rinsed her (now much smaller) uterus and pushed it back into place.

I’ve grown accustomed to recognizing the signs of early labor in sheep and goats: Pawing the ground, “talkative” behavior, seeking out a quiet spot. I’ve become attuned to the timing necessary to have their babies unassisted and can even manage to go into the house for a hot cocoa or warm my boots for the fire before going out again and attending to wet newborns and anxious mothers. It was last Christmas Eve that I noticed young Lizzy, a first-time freshening ewe, was straining and pushing as if she were in labor. She had showed no other signs of labor—she didn’t even look like she was ready to freshen, really. Everything about it was very odd. I checked her and found that her cervix hadn’t softened or opened. She clearly needed more time for labor to progress, so I gave her a quiet spot with fresh water and hay and went inside to wrap presents. When I went back out 45 minutes later, she was really straining—pushing as if her life depended on it. As I texted my husband to come out for a consult, I watched her push out much of her large intestine. Before I could even react, she pushed out more…much more. It was an absolute mess. We didn’t call the vet that night, as we knew there was no fix for poor Lizzy. My husband often gets the worst job on the farm—putting an animal down—and he did it quickly and quietly that Christmas Eve night.

So, yes I love the holiday season and its change in pace and focus. But we’re never really “off the clock,” as the farm is always calling. I’m also continually wary of my track record of needing a veterinarian on major holidays. Here’s to hoping yours (and my) holidays are uneventful this year!